It was the worst of times

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The Recorder

The indignation oscillated between desperate and righteous at the Consumer Attorneys of California convention, which brought 400 plaintiff lawyers to Nob Hill in the deflated days between the Nov. 2 election and the anticipated congressional push to restrict consumer torts.

Conventioneers strategized, commiserated about insults small and large [“Most people think golf isn’t that athletic, but I’m really sore,” said one attendee after Nov. 11’s invitational, as another compared tort reform to the Third Reich] and, at Nov. 11’s awards dinner, vigorously applauded. But the most common activity, it seemed, was worrying.

“These are trying times,” attorney Gary Paul of Santa Monica told attendees at a lunchtime panel discussion. “I felt like I was punched in the stomach onNov. 2. We went from pure euphoria to the depths of despair in about eight hours.”

Hope and desperation were key themes in the three hours of oratory at the awards dinner. The near-constant applause – some of the seated variety, though most came from an entirely upright audience – seemed as much a group therapy session as a celebration of the accomplishments, successful and otherwise, of the honorees.

The most oft-cheered was James Sturdevant, the outgoing CAOC president and co-recipient – with solo practitioner Thomas Brandi and Mark Johnson of The Sturdevant Law Firm – of the Litigator of the Year Award for a $1.6 billion preliminary judgment against Bank of America on behalf of customers who had their Social Security accounts docked with bounced-check fees. In addition to its monetary heft, the case is a significant milestone for consumer attorneys, marking the first time that a jury has awarded special damages for the elderly or disabled under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act.

But it was also a rough year for Sturdevant, who presided over CAOC through its most demoralizing electoral defeat of the past decade, when California voters passed Proposition 64 and the national election installed a Congress and president [“the most anti-tort president ever elected,” said Paul] keen on curtailing consumer suits.

The night’s other honors underscored the theme of tough times for the plaintiff bar. The Legislator of the Year, Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez, D-San Fernando, was recognized for authoring an automobile buyers’ bill of rights that made it through the Legislature before dying on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s desk.

A coalition of advocacy groups was honored for its unsuccessful work to defeat Prop 64. In his acceptance speech, Douglas Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights, called the governor a “hack actor playing the part of a freedom fighter.”

And in an inauguration speech that amounted to a call to arms, incoming President Sharon Arkin proclaimed, to great applause, that she’s “sick and tired of being demeaned for being a trial lawyer.”

In laying out her plans for the coming year, Arkin says she wants to take the fight against tort reform to the media.

“Now is not the time to run and hide,” she said. “Now is the time to stand and fight.” And that fight, Arkin said, will require time, ingenuity and cash.

“I don’t want anyone to go into poverty giving to Consumer Attorneys,” she said, “even though I have.”

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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